A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 4 Part 2

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The unit concept

Although the term unit concept did not appear in Wisconsin writing until 1959,

footnote: Wisconsin Proceedings, 1959: “Should church fellowship be treated as a unit concept covering every joint expression, manifestation, and demonstration of a common faith? . . . To this question we answer yes, and the Missouri Synod answers no.” end footnote

seeds of this expression were evident in Wisconsin’s presentation on fellowship at least a dozen years earlier. “Jesus does not make such a distinction” between pulpit, altar, and prayer fellowship, Meyer insisted. “We shall continue to speak of one fellowship,” wrote Edmund Reim, “one koinonia, which manifests itself in many ways.” Prayer, altar, and pulpit fellowship “are not so many different fellowships, but outstanding ways in which this one great fellowship manifests itself among Christians.”

By 1950, Wisconsin members of the Synodical Conference Committee on Intersynodical Relations expressed their conviction that the term church fellowship was employed in Scripture “as a unit thought, without any distinction being drawn as to its various forms of expression in common worship and Church work.” In 1957, Reim wrote that there is “one single fellowship which is at work” in various manifestations. Fellowship “is all of one piece, like the seamless robe of Christ.” Reim lamented the havoc created “when this great unit of the truth concerning the fellowship of believers is divided and subdivided into countless fractions,” and each “is then treated as an isolated subject, for separate treatment and consideration.”

Grounded in previous studies, articles, and presentations, Wisconsin’s doctrinal position on church fellowship assumed its basic form and language in Carl Lawrenz’s 1954 essay, “The Scriptural Principles Concerning Church Fellowship.” “With Church Fellowship we mean every outward expression and demonstration of Christian fellowship,” Lawrenz wrote, including prayer. “We stand before [God] not merely as individual believers but as believers who are intimately joined together with all other believers here on earth and in heaven above.” Thus “all of our prayers are joint prayers.” Whatever ways believers may act in expression of their common faith, “they do not become so many different kinds of fellowship,” but are “all expressions of one and the same fellowship of faith.”

Fellowship is based in principle on all of Scripture: “You will not be able to stop short of including the entire Word of God.” Those who confess saving faith in Christ “embrace and accept His entire Word. With them, but only with them, we can express fellowship of faith in all its manifestations.” While this is true in principle, however, every Christian’s faith is plagued by weakness, and “weakness of faith is not in itself a barrier for Christian fellowship,” but “an inducement for exercising our fellowship for the purpose of helping our brethren overcome their weakness.” Weak Christians may be differentiated from “scoffers and unbelievers” by “their willingness to receive spiritual help and instruction.”

When a fellow Christian continues in unrepented sin despite earnest admonition, we can no longer treat him as a brother. Just as clearly “we can no longer recognize and treat those as brethren who in spite of earnest admonition persistently cling to an error in doctrine” or who “demand recognition and toleration for their error and make propaganda for it.” With such a person, Christian fellowship in any form becomes impossible. Faith is endangered when any portion of the Word of God is altered, omitted, added to, or compromised. The Lord frequently spares false prophets and their followers from fatally losing their faith, but false doctrine always “undermines, breaks down, and destroys spiritual life.”

Wisconsin’s identification of “persistent errorists” was dependent on its understanding of Romans 16:17. Already in 1941, Walter Schumann cited with approval R. C. H. Lenski’s interpretation that the Romans passage warns against “not only the exact duplicates of the errorists of Paul’s day” but any new errors that could arise. The phrase those who cause divisions and offenses, though not necessarily implying intent, emphasized that the errorists “habitually deviated from the doctrine of the Church.” The action was “a characteristic trait of the subject.” Paul was “not thinking of anyone who might casually make an erroneous doctrinal statement,” but, instead, he was referring to those who “cling to their error and with it create division.”

Wisconsin theologians thus rejected what they regarded as erroneous interpretations of Romans 16:17,18 that had arisen in the Missouri Synod. The “divisions and offenses” were not restricted to the great doctrines of Christianity, as Brux and others had proposed, but included any teaching that proved to be “contrary to the doctrine.” All doctrine “taught by the Apostles and Prophets” was “the Word of the Lord of Heaven and Earth Himself,” and “every part of it is as much His word as any other part,” whether “fundamental” or “nonfundamental.” The 1957 Quartalschrift reprinted Franz Pieper’s opening sermon for the 1912 Synodical Conference convention, based on Romans chapter 16. All the doctrine is God’s Word, Pieper said, and therefore division even among Christians involved false doctrine. “When men arise within the Christian Church teaching something other than Christ’s Word and refusing to submit to correction, the Christians are not to associate with them, but should isolate them, have no fellowship with them, avoid them.”

Regarding verse 18, Paul was not saying whom they were to avoid but why they were to avoid them. By not submitting to every revealed Word of God, these persistent errorists demon- strated they were “belly-servers.” Admittedly “we start back in horror when we think of applying that [phrase] to teachers in other denominations, to say nothing of such who call themselves Lutherans,” wrote E. Arnold Sitz. But belly, which “to us moderns means all the gross appetites,” was for biblical writers the seat of one’s virtues and emotions, even the “stirring of thought, of high thought, the fruit of intellect and reason” and “the mind of the flesh.” All false doctrine “derives from men’s minds” and is “the product of men’s thinking, and the mind of the flesh.” Therefore “they that cause divisions contrary to the doctrine of the Word serve their own thoughts, the inventions of their own minds.”

Wisconsin rejected “selective fellowship,” which Meyer defined as the practice by which individual pastors and congregations of one synod share pulpit or altar fellowship with pastors and congregations of another synod with which their own synod is unable to establish doctrinal agreement, “across synodical boundary lines, where the respective synods themselves cannot do it or sanction it.” Practicing selective fellowship requires one to ignore that “a synod is a church, a body of believers held together, not by some man-made set of rules, but by a common confession of faith and a common practice expressive of the faith so confessed.” Selective fellowship “simply champions the alleged right of one Christian to recognize another by some signal other than his confession.” It is “nothing but an attempt to blow hot and cold at the same time.” Once selective fellowship is granted between “doctrinally divergent Lutheran bodies,” there is nothing to prevent it from occurring also with Methodists, Baptists, and “other sectarians whose Churches rate as Christian bodies.”

Edmund Reim charged that portions of A Statement of the 44 militated against the Synodical Conference practice of prayer fellowship. A Statement “undeniably contains many things that are sound and true,” and “the spirit of uncharitableness, legalism, intellectualism, and traditionalism has always constituted a dangerous pitfall for those who undertake to defend an established doctrinal position.” Yet A Statement’s conclusions pointed “toward closer understanding, cooperation, and the beginnings of fellowship with those from whom we have been separated in the past.” A Statement revealed itself to be a partisan document, representing a single school of thought regarding prayer fellowship, nonfundamental doctrines, offense, unionism, and the meaning of Romans 16:17 and its applicability to questions of Lutheran union.

Wisconsin acknowledged “without a moment’s hesitation” that there were “externals in which a Christian may without offense cooperate” with those not united in a common confession of faith “We do not claim that Synodical Conference Lutherans may have no contact with Lutherans of other bodies,” Reim maintained, “nor do we claim that there be no such contact between the several synods.” In making use of a common agency for transmitting and distributing relief to war sufferers, one’s confessional stand is not compromised.

But externals in which churches may properly cooperate were “far more limited than is usually thought.” By definition, cooperation is a “working together,” involving “business” of a “spiritual nature.” William Schaefer argued that actions labeled “external” often proved to be more of a “spiritual nature” than advertised. History had amply demonstrated that “cooperation in externals” too often turned out to be “a pretty wood-pile from which the dusky face of unionism sooner or later emerges.”

footnote: President Brenner expressed “deep concern” in 1949 over “an increasing number of incidents of joint worship and work under conditions which are contrary to Scripture.” Brenner was dismayed at “the growing frequency and boldness of these incidents” and disappointed that efforts to deal with such situations privately or through official channels “have met with little success.” end footnote

Schaefer also questioned “whether there is any work in the church which is purely ‘external’”—a theme Meyer also expounded. Although granting the term “cooperation in externals,” Meyer all but denied their actual existence:

Is church work, cooperation in church work, coordination of church work merely a matter of logical definition? Is it not the expression of a life, a new life, a life created by the special act of the Holy Ghost? . . . Fine drawn distinctions according to the laws of logic may dull the spiritual sensitivities to such an extent that a person will confuse doctrinal indifference with evangelical methods and will condemn as legalistic a holy awe before the truth. That is the spirit of unionism.

Meyer questioned whether Lutheran charities, orphanages, “old people’s homes,” hospitals, and other agencies could ever be regarded as “merely secular agencies for the physical relief of suffering.” Collaboration with secular institutions or organizations from other church bodies “can hardly be regarded as cooperation in externals.” Meyer appealed to the example of the apostles at Jerusalem, who “evidently” did not view their work of caring for widows and the needy as “secular” work. Organized joint work in ministries of mercy “is a form in which Christians practice their love as a fruit of the spirit. It definitely is a phase of their sanctification.”

Responding to the contention of some Missourians that their synod had exercised a more open practice of prayer fellowship in its early history, Wisconsin’s Immanuel Frey argued that “those were the formative years when lines had not yet been clearly drawn.” Walther and his associates regarded the representatives of other Lutheran bodies at that time as “weak brethren.” To consider Walther “an advocate of joint prayer with those who he knew as persistent errorists is to slander and misrepresent him.” After lines between the Lutheran synods were more clearly drawn following the Election Controversy, joint prayer was discontinued because “it had become plainly evident” that these Lutherans “were not weak brethren but persistent errorists. The documentary evidence is unassailable.”

This understanding of Missouri’s pre-1881 practice was repeated and expanded in the first of a series of articles in the Northwestern Lutheran early in 1961 and reprinted in the tract Fellowship Then and Now. Calling the years before the founding of the Synodical Conference the “period of groping,” the authors noted that Walther’s invitation to the free conferences in the 1850s “was based on a wholehearted acceptance of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession” and a rejection of S. S. Schmucker’s Definite Platform. As Walther put it in Der Lutheraner, “Only such persons would be recognized as members who subscribe to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession without reservation.”

At these conferences men were recognized “as brethren as long as they [testified] with vigor against the prevailing errors and for the truth.” Fellowship at the free conferences was not established with the General Synod as such but only with those who offered a positive confession of the truth and “would continue membership in their respective bodies as long as there still [was] a basis for hope of improvement.” In this and in subsequent colloquies with the Buffalo and Iowa synods, “the question was not, Can unity be attained? but, Can unity, threatened by error, be preserved?” Thus, at the opening sessions of such meetings, “joint prayer was in place. This was hardly joint prayer with representatives of bodies who were persistently adhering to an error.”

With the founding of the Synodical Conference and the predestination controversy, the “period of groping” came to an end. “The confessional lines of the Lutheran bodies in American had been clearly drawn.” No joint prayers were offered at the free conferences of 1903–1906 or at meetings for the Intersynodical Theses of the 1920s “until the last meetings, at which the conferees believed they had reached full doctrinal agreement. Quite correctly they then conducted the meetings with joint prayer.”

The war of words

Open disagreement, sharp accusations, and point-counterpoint argumentation between the sister synods now became commonplace. On April 13, 1947, Edmund Reim announced a change in the editorial policy of the Northwestern Lutheran. While intersynodical disagreements had crowded the pages of Wisconsin’s Quartalschrift for almost a decade, and debate over the controverted issues dominated many pastoral conferences, the Northwestern Lutheran (and the Gemeinde–Blatt) had remained largely silent on these issues. But now “a time to speak” had come—“not for the purpose of disrupting now the fellowship about which we were so concerned before” but “because the situation is no longer the same. Time is passing. Issues must eventually be decided.” Church members were “surely entitled to know where our Wisconsin stands and why it stands as it does.”

Even earlier, however, in 1940, Theodore Graebner had asked: “How far will our critics of the Wisconsin and Norwegian synods press the Scriptural demand for ‘speaking the same thing,’ First Corinthians 1:10? If this is urged (as a condition of fellowship) regarding any expression of human origin, no matter how orthodox, it is the essence of sectarianism.” Alluding to the Wisconsin and Norwegian synods, Graebner concluded “I am not ready to admit that an orthodoxy which offends against the law of love in judging of the words of opponents (and of fellow-Christians) is sound Lutheran theology.”

footnote: Although Theodore Graebner’s father, August L. Graebner, was teaching at the Wisconsin Synod’s Northwestern College when Theodore was born in 1876, and although he was well acquainted with the Wisconsin Synod, Theodore Graebner is recorded to have said some harsh things about Wisconsin. In addition to his comment cited earlier, that Wisconsin’s pastors suffered from “a complete hardening of their doctrinal arteries” Graebner also made passing reference in a letter to Herman Harms on March 28, (1949?) to a “neurosis, the same kind with which we have had such unpleasant contacts with the Norwegian Synod, and Wisconsin and their representatives in Missouri.” end footnote

In 1942, the American Lutheran quoted approvingly an article from the Lutheran Companion critical of Wisconsin’s opposition to the Missouri–American Lutheran Church union discussions. The Companion characterized these discussions as “friendly negotiations” designed “to come to a better understanding regarding questions on which they have differed for several decades,” and charged that the Wisconsin Synod “obviously does not desire to reach an agreement with anybody.” Recalling that while condemned men were being shot in Moscow’s public square during the October Revolution, clergy of the Orthodox church were “debating the question of the proper vestments that should be worn on certain church festivals,” the Companion asked:

Is the Lutheran Church of America awake to its opportunity and responsibility today? Does it understand that this is a time to cease needless bickerings and to close its ranks and go forward together in the great task of witnessing for Christ in this solemn day of visitation and judgment? Instead of continuing our endless strife and divisions, perhaps it were better for all Lutheran synods as well as all Lutheran pastors and people to get down on our knees and to ask God for mercy on us.

In 1943, the American Lutheran expressed dismay at a Christian Century critique of Lutheran isolation.

footnote: The Century called it “unlikely” that the Missouri and Wisconsin synods would “in the near future consider union with other Lutherans on any basis whatever.” The Century attributed the synods’ isolation to their being numbered among “more recent waves of immigration” and predicted it might take “another generation or two before they become sufficiently indigenous to American culture” to “trust themselves in the warmth of fellowship which American Christianity affords.” end footnote

“A careful analysis will reveal that the paralysis of extreme isolation is even now developing in our church.” It was not surprising that “certain elements would frustrate every attempt at a closer approach” to other Lutherans. In a companion editorial, the American Lutheran found it “puzzling” that the Century’s “tremendous indictment of the Lutheran churches” went all but ignored in Wisconsin’s Northwestern Lutheran. “One would expect a little self-examination. Is there not even a little truth in the accusation of the Christian Century?”

In part, the Northwestern Lutheran had responded, “We hope and pray that the movement toward Lutheranism will continue until Protestant churches will be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

The American Lutheran replied:

When we hope and pray sincerely for something, we want it earnestly. Before we were confirmed our pastor explained this in connection with the Fourth Petition. We shall not pray for our bread in idleness but do something about getting it. That holds true also with the movement toward Lutheranism. To quote the Lutheran Witness: “It was a matter of surprise when the Wisconsin Synod voted in two conventions that a continuation of our meetings with other Lutherans for the establishment of fellowship involves ‘a denial of the truth.’” God wishes to use us as agencies to make our prayer come true and realize our hope.

footnote: President Behnken said in 1946: “It is true that some doctrinal discussions have revealed a decided lack of doctrinal unity. What shall be done then? Instead of growing weary of doctrinal discussions those who desire a genuine Lutheran fellowship should realize that this necessitates a deeper study of Biblical doctrine and the Lutheran Confessions and a frank but friendly discussion of the doctrinal differences which have been keeping us apart so that with God’s help and under His blessings doctrinal unity might be reached.”

Wisconsin responded that the Holy Christian Church already enjoys perfect unity because the oneness that exists between all believers is fashioned after the oneness of the Holy Trinity. “To speak as though this oneness for which the Savior prayed is either to be achieved or restored by human planning and organization constitutes a serious misuse” of Jesus’ words in John 17:21. “Why not accept the wonderful fact that these words are fulfilled, and that its blessings are with us every day? For the Church of Christ is one.” end footnote

Wisconsin took aim in 1949 at the Lutheran Witness, particularly its editor Theodore Graebner. During his editorship (along with that of Martin Sommer), the Witness had achieved the largest circulation of any religious magazine in the United States. Graebner’s many reports and editorials “were not only brilliantly written but read widely, far beyond the confines of his own synod. . . .

Time was when the Witness was an outstanding exponent of conservative Lutheranism. Nowhere did one find a more searching criticism of the theology and the current activities of other Lutheran bodies, nowhere a more unsparing exposing of the errors which were thereby discovered, nowhere a sharper denunciation of unionism. . . ; nowhere was there a sterner application of the classical passages against unionism, particularly Romans 16:17 with its “avoid them.”

What happened?

The Witness became newsier. And the news came to be more and more of one color. Gone was the stern reproof with which the Witness of former years would have greeted many of these modern developments. . . . Nor would one gather from current issues of the Witness that there are today large groups of Missourians, pastors and congregations, who are thoroughly alarmed over this modern trend toward cooperation, who still call it unionism when this cooperation involves work of a spiritual nature. . . . Although these groups of “Old Missourians” have also been quite active, their doings have seemingly had no “news value” for the Witness—or they did not fit into the policy.

End Chapter 4 Part 2